Mabel’s family, the Hall-Dares of Newtownbarry, were in the first wave of Co. Wexford gentry to adopt the horseless carriage – although in all probability not a Merc, the first of which rolled off the production lines as late as 1926 apparently.
This vehicle, illustrated above, is now resignedly, like an old grey, seeing out its retirement in a public carpark in Plakias, south-western Crete, a hundred metres or so from the shores of the Libyan Sea. As a marque of respect, the researchers of the Bent Archive, recently in the area (May 2022), resorted to Mabel Bent’s Chronicle of April 1885 to confirm that the nearest the Bents got to Plakias (a huddle of fishermen’s huts at the time) was from some way out to sea, heading west for Kythera on the steamer Roumelifrom Karpathos.
In fact, in their twenty years of inseparable travelling, Theodore and Mabel only landed once on Crete, then in the hands of the Turks, storm-sheltering at Kaloi Limenes/Kali Limenes, further to the east of Plakias, after their protracted investigations in the Dodecanese (early months, 1885). The haven, of course, has always aided those in peril on the sea, as it did Saint Paul, as the legend has it. Once the weather cleared, the Roumeli steamed on west, rounding Crete and Antikythera, before reaching Kythera town.
It is unclear why Crete, this major island, never attracted Theodore’s spade, but it probably had something to do with his notoriety; the era of freelancing excavators was coming to an end in Greece and Turkey, and Bent was soon to make an enemy of the implacable Turkish administrator of antiquities, Osman Hamdi Bey. The site of Knossos had been discovered in 1878 (the year after the Bents’ wedding) by Minos Kalokairinos, although it was not until 1900 that Arthur Evans began to extensively clear it. (For a glimpse of Cretan archaeological machinations in 1885, see, e.g., Frothingham 1888. Theodore did very well to steer clear, and, from 1886 eastwards to the Turkish coast. Within a few years, even here became too difficult for the Bents to explore at will, and they were soon off to Africa and Arabia, where they could more freely investigate.)
But, for the moment, back to Crete. Here, then, are the relevant extracts from Mabel’s notebook of their stay of a few hours on the island, at Kaloi Limenes, some fifty years before the great John Pendlebury ran across the hills above the site, as oblivious of his fate as Theodore was of his:
“Tuesday April 22nd [actually 21st, 1885]. After this we turned S.W. and sailed under Crete. We had a fearful night of storm, pitching, rolling, catching ‘B flats’ [fleas/bedbugs] and fears of falling on the floor. Added to which I am so spoiled by my hammock that I found the bed dreadfully hard. Much splashing took place and water flew over the ship, so about 10 o’clock, when we got close to ‘a certain island called Clauda’ [Acts 27:16. The Saint shelters here while travelling, as a prisoner, by ship to Rome. The ancient town of Lasea was nearby], we had to turn S. then E. again and take refuge here – a very sheltered place. We went ashore with the water barrels. There is a beach and some bushes and a pretty stream in which many clothes were washed by those who subsequently landed, and all the hands and faces washed, so no doubt we came back a cleaner party than we went…
“The annoyance at being turned back was quite overborne by the interest of coming to Kalé Liminas, and it was a great satisfaction to think that St. Paul must have drunk and washed in that very stream, and being stormstayed too was rather nice. The city of Lasea, which was nigh unto the Fair Havens, has disappeared but the place is the same…
“Wednesday, April [22nd, 1885]. We started at 8 in the evening and after a good deal of tossing got into calmer regions, but still were ‘under Crete’ in the morning [passing the huts of Plakias to starboard]. We had a lovely day. About 10 we passed Cerigotto, or as they call it Ante Kythera, and about 12 reached Kythera, or Cerigo, and found ourselves in a very pretty little double bay with a rocky promontory in the middle and a sandy shore.”
A recent photo sent in by Alan King as he steamed by Syrna (Σύρνα, anciently Syrnos) in the Dodecanese – minuscule and inaccessible, thus happily tucked away from Cycladic summer silliness just to the west – steered us to the Bents’ writings on an islet they were determined to see in early Spring 1888.
Theodore, after a cursory inspection of the terrain around the landing place on April 9th, wrote a note for The Classical Review (1888, Vol. II (10), p.329). If he did remove some of the obsidian blades he refers to, then they are not it seems recorded elsewhere:
“The small island rock, anciently known as Sirina, now as Agios Joannis, occupies a somewhat important position in the Aegean Sea, as one of the stepping-stones by which the earlier inhabitants of Karia must have travelled westwards; it has two good harbours, one to the north, and one to the south, and is placed midway in a long stretch of sea between Karpathos and Astypalaea, in both of which islands traces of this prehistoric race have been found. Having carefully examined Anaphi, an island lying to the west of this line of route, and having found there no traces whatsoever of this early population, and knowing that Astypalaea, Amorgos, Naxos and Paros are full of their tombs, I was considerably interested in discovering in the ruins of a square fortress on Sirina quantities of obsidian knives, which at once identified this rock with the race in question, and proved to us that they made use of it as a halting-place on their way to and from the marble quarries of Paros; in fact Parian marble, objects of which are so frequently found in their tombs, would seem to have been their chief quest in these westward migrations.”
Theodore makes no mention of the hassle getting to this tricky rock. They had hired a fine schooner from Syros a month or so before in early 1888 to cruise up and down the Turkish coast opposite Rhodes, and the skipper, Captain Nikolas, had no intention of breaking her up for insignificant Sirina. But the Bents, as often as not, get their way. Mabel tells the tale in her diary – first a skirmish from her and then a broadside from her husband:
“Sunday [April 8th, 1888]. Well, this morning we set sail, but not before dawn, for Sirina, as we thought, and with the scirocco we should have sailed south of Tilos, which lay directly in our way. We were busy in the cabin, but I peeped up and saw we were steering straight for Nisiros, north of Tilos. So I told Theodore and he proposed to go up and row with the captain, but I said I would make less formal enquiries. I said to [first mate] Grigoris, ‘We are going north of Tilos it seems?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But very far north! We are going to Nisiros.’ ‘Well! I suppose we shall tack soon, for we shall no doubt pass Tilos as close as we did Rhodes.’ The wind was quite fair for Tilos. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say he could not help it, and I said, ‘How soon shall we tack for the south?’ ‘We are going inside Nisiros.’ ‘But why?’ ‘To go to Kos!’
“So Theodore went up and there was a frightful, awful row. Now Grigoris said he did not wish to go to Sirina at all, and would not go there, and there was no water or harbours and many rocks and no lighthouse and he was always considered a most noble man, and honourable, and so on. ‘Very well’, said Theodore, ‘Go straight to Syra and we will go to the judge and the consul,’ etc.
“Later, with [our dragoman Manthaios] as a go-between we said if we could not go south, we did not mind going to a small island called Levitha on the way to Syra. This was agreed upon and we did not care a bit. It rained. I looked out again and saw that now we were going south of Nisiros and close to Tilos, past Kavos Kryos and Kos, where we had agreed to anchor for the night far to the dim north. ‘Where are we going now, Andreas?’ ‘To that place,’ [the crewman replied] very sulkily. ‘What place?’ ‘To Sirina!’ Of course we have lost hours by going so far north and are now fearing a calm.
“Next morning [9th April ] about 10 we reached Sirina and landed after luncheon. We walked across the island to the sea at the other side, where there is a deep bay. Here was a sort of farm, a very irregular enclosure of loose piled stones and very thick walls. The only thing with mortar was the oven. An old woman came out of the dark hut where she was shut in and brought us out little square blocks of wood to sit on, and she directed Theodore to where there were some old stones and so I returned to the ship with one man and the rest went off, but finding the earth all gone and only foundations on rocks they returned, and we set off again in the afternoon.” (Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol.1, Oxford, 2006, p.252-3).
All rather a storm in a seacup, and the frivolous couple’s scamper contrasts unbelievably with the reality of an incident on the island many years later, 7 December 1946, when a medical team,* including Lawrence Durrell as it happens, was sent from Rhodes on a Greek warship to assist the sick and wounded of the vessel Athina Rafiah (originally the SS Athena), carrying Jewish immigrants to Israel, which was wrecked there, with around 800 survivors coming ashore. Sadly eight of the refugees, among them children, perished in the aftermath of the wreck and are buried on the island. There is a lonely monument there to them all.
* ‘With Durrell on Rhodes, 1945-47’, by Raymond Mills, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Lawrence Durrell Issue, Part 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 312-316.
“And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing!” (from Mabel Bent’s Chronicleof 1889)
We begin our essay on Theodore and Mabel Bent and India not at the Taj Mahal, nor the Ellora Caves, but in leafy Brookwood Cemetery (Surrey, UK), an hour from London, on May 24, 1904:
“And why, it may be asked, were so many Indian and English friends gathered… in such a place on a dismal day in a downpour of rain? The day was dismal, and rightly so, for the obsequies were being performed of Mr. Jamsetdjee Nusserwanjee Tata, the foremost citizen, taken all round, that India has produced during the long period of British rule over the most cultured and civilised people east of Suez…”
For it seems, indeed, that Mabel Bent, and perhaps Theodore too, although dead and buried himself these seven years, was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of the extraordinary Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), the pioneer Indian industrialist who founded the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate company (as at 2021).
And in the same periodical that reports the industrialist’s funeral – the Voice of India, Saturday, 18 June 1904 (p. 583) – we have an image of Mabel, bearing flowers, her long red hair tucked under a black hat:
“From Mr. N.J. Moola I have received the following list of inscriptions attached to the wonderfully beautiful and choice flowers that were an eloquent expression of the affection in which Mr. Tata was held…”
And included in this list we find: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent,’ and Mabel remained friends with the family, as a cutting from the Belfast Evening Telegraph of Monday, June 28, 1913, indicates: “Mrs. Theodore Bent’s recent evening party was as great a success as her other functions have always been, and was particularly noticeable for the number of distinguished foreign and Colonial guests present. The suite of beautiful rooms, which form a perfect museum of curios from all parts of the world, were looking their best, and were crowded with guests of many nationalities, many of the ladies wearing diamonds in the form of tiaras and other ornaments, some of the handsomest being displayed by a Parsee lady, Mrs. Ratan Tata, who had splendid sapphires set into diamond frames as a necklace, and also for securing her white saree.”
To be able to associate Mabel, the archetypal Victorian, with the legendary ‘Father of Indian Industry’ seems somehow an unusual but fanfaring introduction to the Bents and India, with all the dynamics and symbolism in play between the nations at the end of the 19th century. India meant something, and meant adventures in and around the region for the Bents.
In all, our couple made three trips to India – not the London, ten-hour flight to Mumbai of today, but then, of course, traversing several seas (the Suez Canal was opened to navigation on 17 November, 1869). Let it be known, Theodore never expressed any sustained interest in exploring or excavating regionally in India, nor to travel and write about its culture; it seems the idea of the land was just too big for him to provide any focus or purchase, and there was something, too, in his psychology, that did not fit. And yet, such was the meaning of India, it would have been extraordinary indeed were he never to have set foot on the Asian continent. Thus, concisely, we can condense their trips to India into: one business meeting (1895), two transit stops (1889 and 1894), and one brief tourist excursion (1895).
But it was India nevertheless.
Theodore wrote no articles directly relating to these visits, the name ‘India’ appearing in just one title. For Mabel, her diary entries are strangely muted (as we shall read in a moment): there is no colour, no sensory Indian overload, as if British control of the ports they landed at and left from, without much exploration, had thrown an odd English and subfusc wash over everything.
Their first Asian visit was in December 1889 – in a dramatic volte face and characteristic burst of energy and enthusiasm from Theodore that was to launch the couple out of their Eastern-Mediterranean orbit – having been denied further rights to ‘explore’ in either Greece or Turkey – and project them thousands of kilometres eastwards, for Bahrain, then under British and India Office protection, and with Theodore at relative liberty therefore to shovel-and-pick his way there through the ‘Mounds of Ali’. His fuel for this foray was an interest he had by the end of the 1890s in various long-standing theories and Classical references that seemed to link Bahrain with the Phoenicians, and in turn to the movement of early peoples around the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond – perhaps the theme that could be said to be the pivot of his short life’s work; his means of taking himself and his wife to Bahrain was via a slow boat from Karachi, then in India and under the British Raj. But their first port of call was to be Bombay.
The summer of 1888 was taken up, as usual, with Theodore conducting a busy schedule of talks and lectures in England and Scotland, as well as a non-stop programme of article-writing and publishing. Late summer was the time for extended holidays in Ireland and northern England, seeing family and friends, and so it was not until after Christmas 1888 that Theodore and Mabel had everything in place to leave London. Through Suez, and changing at Aden, they reached Mumbai (then Bombay) after three weeks, and immediately left for Karachi and a cruise up the eastern side of the Persian Gulf; making a brief halt at Muscat, before crossing to Bushire, arriving there on 1 February 1889. From there they crossed the Gulf once more to reach Bahrain. (Their finds there, now in the British Museum, were modest and the couple spent only two weeks on the island.) By the end of February 1889 the couple are leaving again for Bushire, Mabel adding in her diary: ‘having passed 40 days and 40 nights of our precious time on the sea, we then and there made up our minds to return over land…’ And with this throwaway remark, Mabel announces the couple’s epic ride of some 2000 km through Persia, the first leg of their journey home to Marble Arch.
But let us now peer over Mabel’s shoulder and read her ‘Chronicle’ while she writes on the “British India S.S. Pemba, January 21st 1889, Monday. Passing Gujarat, India”
“I now for the first time [Monday, 21st January 1889] feel tempted to bring forth this book, as I am so soon to get off the beaten track. Theodore and I left London on December 28th (Friday) in the P.&O.S.S. Rosetta, not a very comfortable or clean ship and landed at Naples (Saturday) on the way and changed at Aden (Monday), with no time to land, to the P.&O. Assam, which, though smaller, is wider and has much better passenger accommodation and was very clean.
“We reached Bombay on Sunday 20th [January 1889] after a roughish time in the Indian Ocean, passing on Saturday the American racing yacht Coronet going round the world. There were few passengers on the ‘Assam’. And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing! We found the tender of the British India waiting hungrily for us and were carried off with the mails at once. This [i.e. the ‘Pemba’] is a very small ship and only one passenger for Kurrachi 1st class, but quantities of odd deck passengers dressed and the reverse. We have a cabin next to the little ladies’ cabin and their bath and all in communication, so Theodore has a dressing room and we are most comfortable. We are to call at several places on our way to Bushire. The sea is very calm and it is nice and cool and we are passing a coast like Holland with palms, or rather coconut trees.
“We reached Kurrachi on Wednesday 23rd [January 1889] about 2 o’clock, and being tempted by the thought of 2 nights ashore, landed. We were surprised at the immense fleet of huge sailing boats which surrounded the ship instead of the usual little ones, but we were a good way out. They are building a new lighthouse further back and on lower ground but higher in itself, as the present one is being shaken by the guns on Manora Point.
“On landing on the bunder, or quay, we took a carriage for Reynold’s Hotel. After leaving the bunder, where various shipping buildings are, we drove for a mile or more along the bund, or embankment, across water and in about 6 miles we reached our destination. All around is arid and sandy but they are making a fierce fight to rear up some dusty plantains, palms, pepper trees, etc. The hotel was a great disappointment as the establishment is just a one-storeyed bungalow with a veranda all round and everyone’s door opening on to it and most with no kind of blind to prevent the inmates being beheld by outsiders. We found ourselves, when night came, in this case and so without ceremony flitted to a suite next door with imitation coloured glass. There was a dressing room behind and a built bath cemented in a bathroom beyond. All was very untidy and wretched and when night came we wished ourselves on board the ‘Pemba’.
“The cantonment road was near, also many others intersecting the sandy plain all 40 feet wide and one with footpaths fully 20. This led past the bungalows of officers, each in a compound, which made the road very long and dull, and it was very hot too. On Thursday [24th January 1889] we drove to the city about 4 miles off and nearer the sea and discovered the native town and wandered up and down narrow streets full of people intermixed with cows and passed several baths where people were washing themselves outside the buildings.
“We departed at dawn on Friday [25th January 1889] and drove down to the bunder and were off after breakfast, now the only 1st class. Friday night we stopped 3 miles out from Gwadar in Beloochistan, so of course saw nothing, and on Sunday morning, 27th [January 1889] early, found ourselves at Muscat in Arabia.”
Five years on – Karachi revisited: Bound for India a second time
For 1895, the Bents have decided to make a second attempt to penetrate regions of Yemeni Hadramaut, this time approaching from the south-east, via Muscat again and the coast of modern Oman. Their first trek into the Wadi Hadramaut, in 1894, was only partially successful, and on their return they soon made plans to try again. Mabel’s previous Chronicle had ended in an upbeat tone with ‘and if we possibly can we’ll go back’. In any event they only had a few months (and, as said before, they normally took a break in mid-summer to visit family and friends in England and Ireland) to seek backing and make all the necessary preparations, including informing the ‘media’. Ultimately Theodore was ready to issue a ‘press release’ to The Times (31 October 1894): “Mr. Theodore Bent informs Reuter’s Agency that he and Mrs. Bent are about to start another scientific expedition to Southern Arabia. Leaving Marseilles by Messageries steamer on November 12, they will proceed to Kurrachee, whence they will tranship to Muscat.”
For a first-hand account, we have an extract from Mabel’s classic book on their Arabian adventures – Southern Arabia (1900) – in which she explains (p. 228 ff):
“My husband again, to our great satisfaction, had Imam Sharif, Khan Bahadur [expedition cartographer of note on their last trip], placed at his disposal; and, as the longest way round was the quickest and best, we determined to make our final preparations in India, and meet him and his men at Karachi.”
But let’s at this point switch back to Mabel’s diaries, and her entry for: “Saturday 15th December, 1894. The Residency, Muscat. As it is now nearly a fortnight since I have seen a white woman, I think it time to start my writing. We left England [Friday] Nov. 9th  and after 2 nights at Boulogne embarked at Marseilles on [Monday] the 12th [November 1894] on board the M.M.S.S. ‘Ava’. We had a good passage and warm, seeing Etna smoking on the way, and about 2 days after had a great white squall; I daresay in connection with the earthquakes. We transshipped at Aden to ‘La Seyne’, Theodore going ashore to see about the camp furniture left there 7 months ago.
“We reached Kurrachee on the morning of [Thursday] the 29th [November 1894] and a letter came on board from Mr. James, the Commissioner, asking us to stay at Government House, saying he was going to the Durbar at Lahore, but his sister, Mrs. Pottinger, would entertain us – and so she did, most kindly. She is so pretty and charming, I do not know which of us was most in love with her…
“We remained at Kurrachee till Monday night after dinner. We drove out every evening and one morning went to the bazaars. I bought a lot of toe rings of various shapes, silver with blue and green enamel. They were weighed against rupees and 2 annas added to each rupee. One day we went to call on 2 brides and bridegrooms, Mr. and Mrs. McIver Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. The ladies, Miss Grimes and Miss Moody, had come out to our steamer, been married that day, and were passing their honeymoon together at Reynold’s Hotel, amid the pity of all beholders. We embarked [Monday 3rd/Tuesday 4th December 1894] on the B.I.S.N.S.S. Chanda with a little plum pudding Mrs. Pottinger had had made and mixed and stirred by herself and us, and Mr. Ireland, a young invalid officer who was being taken care of at Government House, and her young nephew, Mr. A. James. We were 3 days on the Chanda, a clean little ship with a very clever nice Captain Whitehead, and on Thursday morning [6th December 1894] we reached Muscat…”
A third and final return to India
Alas, this expedition along the Oman coast also turns out to be less than successful – although the couple made some remarkable discoveries. The fastness that was the ‘Wadi Hadhramout’ again resisted the Bents’ advances and the party found itself stranded at Sheher, on Yemen’s south coast, in late January 1895, in vain hoping to strike northwards into the Wadi area, or, failing that, to return to Muscat to explore further there.
Mabel’s expedition Chronicle of around this date is haphazard and, understandably, rather depressed. Something happens, and, as in nowhere else in her twenty years of diary-keeping, the detailed notes of the couple’s travels disappear. We get a few lines from the Yemeni south coast before moving with her on board the Imperator for Mumbai:
“[About Wednesday, 30th January 1895, Sheher] … The next 2 days there were great negotiations and plannings as to our future course. One plan was to go hence to Inat in the Wadi Hadhramout, down to Kabre Hud and Bir Borhut and thence to the Mosila Wadi; eastward and back by the coast to this place and then try to go westward. But the other is to us preferable; to go along the coast, first up Mosila and into the Hadhramout and then try to go west, without coming here again. Of course there are so many delays of all sorts that we shall be here some days yet. The one pleasure we can enjoy is a quiet walk along the shore covered with pretty shells and birds…
“A good long time has elapsed since I wrote and I resume my Chronicle. Sunday, February 17th . And hardly can I write for the shaking of the very empty Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Imperator’ bound for Bombay. After a good deal of illusory delay, the Sultan Hussein declared he could not answer in any way for our safety if we went anywhere and so we at first thought of going to Muscat in a dhow and going to the Jebel Akhdar, as we had intended if it had not been for Imam Sheriff’s illness, but with the wind blowing N.E. it would have taken fully a month. We then must have gone round by India to get home and all our steamer clothes were at Aden. So as soon as we could we hired a dhow and embarked thereupon at about 1 o’clock for Aden…”
Back on dry land, we know the Bents were in Aden again by Wednesday, 13 February 1895. On that date Theodore wrote a ‘press release’ via the Royal Geographical Society, which was published in The Times of 1 March, announcing that ‘The party… went on to Sheher… Last year the people were very friendly to Mr. Bent’s party and promised to take them on a tour into the interior, but the season was too far advanced. To Mr. Bent’s surprise, however they received him and his party very coldly, absolutely refused to let them go outside the town, and told them that for the future no European would be allowed to enter the Hadramaut… Although it is evident Mr. Bent has not been able to carry out what would have been an expedition of the first magnitude, still it would seem that his journey will not be without interesting and novel results. His latest letter is dated from Aden, February 13, and he expects to be home about the middle of April.’
And they will come home via India; and Mabel’s few lines above are all we have of the Bents’ last trip there. Why did Mabel not keep up her diary? They would have reached Bombay on the Imperator (a lovely ship of 4140 tons, launched in September 1886 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company) by the end of February 1895, and we know the two of them were back in London by the end of April.
The Manchester Guardian of 25 April 1895 carried another report: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent have returned to London after spending the winter in exploring some of the little known or entirely unknown valleys of Southeastern Arabia. The flying trip which Mr. Bent made to India to see Colonel Holdich, the head of the Indian Survey, as to some unexpected difficulties, presumably of official origin, thrown in the way of the realisation of his plans for visiting the Eastern Hadramaut Valley, was unfortunately unsuccessful, as Colonel Holdich was absent on frontier business…’
Allowing for a two- or three-week journey back to England, Theodore and Mabel would have remained three or four weeks in India. As we have read above, one mission Theodore had in the country was to try and find his friend the great ‘Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India’, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich, intending to elicit his support for one further expedition to the Hadramaut.
But Mabel’s above note, about needing Aden again to collect their personal effects, including ‘steamer clothes’ prior to making for Bombay, leads indirectly to one last bit of classic tourism and sightseeing – the fabled Ellora Caves. It looks, however, as if Mabel never went along; indeed, the only reference we have to the trip comes after Mabel’s death in 1929; prompted by her obituary in the Times, a letter appears in the same newspaper a few days later. This letter, of 6 July 1929, is from Mrs Julia Marie Tate, of 76 Queensborough Terrace, Hyde Park, London, widow of William Jacob Tate, in which she wistfully recalls:
“… a vivid picture of a moonlit night as clear as day off Aden, watching Arabian ‘sampans’ unloading tents and quantities of camp ‘saman’ [personal effects]. Presently their owners climbed up, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent. A few months before [i.e. the winter of 1894/5] we had called at their [London] house in Great Cumberland-place to learn their whereabouts, but the butler knew nothing, only that they were ‘somewhere in the Indian Ocean.’ This improvised meeting brought about the fulfilment of a cherished desire of theirs when my husband took his old schoolfellow to see the wonder caves of Ellora. This was their last reunion on earth.”
It is remarkably odd that Mabel makes no mention of this trip to the ‘wonder caves’ – was she ill? Or prevented somehow from going? Did it cause such resentment that she refused to chronicle the stay in Mumbai, and the long journey home by sea? Her regret at missing out on this excursion – then as now one of India’s greatest tourist attractions – can be imagined, for she was not easily denied. Also unusual is the fact that Theodore also wrote nothing about the visit to the caves (a trip that would have necessitated several nights away from his wife) – he did have much else on his mind, but perhaps also he had no desire to bring up the matter again and avoid any breakfast-table ill will!
And his companion? William Jacob Tate (1853-1899) was at Repton School with Theodore in the late 1860s. He joined the Indian Civil Service but had to retire early on account of his health and died just two years after Theodore in December 1899, at the age of 46. Mabel and Mrs Tate perhaps remained in town while Theodore and his old school friend visited the Ellora cave complex of monasteries and temples carved in the basalt cliffs north of Aurangabad (Maharashtra State), some 300 km north-east of Mumbai – “Reached from Nandgaon (G.I.P. Railway) by tonga, holding three passengers… Visitors are advised to take a sufficient supply of provisions and liquors for the trip.’ (Thomas Cook: India Burma and Ceylon : information for travellers and residents (1898, p. 79)
As for Mrs Tate, she can be forgiven her unseen tears in her letter to the Times. A stone in the Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery Heuvelland, Belgium, is inscribed: ‘Tate, Lieutenant, William Louis, 3rd Bn., Royal Fusiliers. Killed in action 13 March 1915. Age 24. Eldest son of the late William Jacob Tate, I.C.S., and of Mrs. Julia Marie Tate.’ And the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial has this: ‘Tate, Captain, Frederick Herman, Mentioned in Despatches, 10th Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps. 11 August 1917. Age 22. Son of Mrs. Tate… the late W.J. Tate.’
The old steamer on her westward bearing leaves Bombay in her wake. No amount of meditation in the Ellora Caves, or anywhere else, will ease such wounds, be it for Tate or Tata: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
Just before (Western) Easter 1888, the tireless British explorers Theodore and Mabel Bent, on an extended cruise down the Turkish coast, had reached the small, thriving island of Kastellorizo – one more location to add to their twenty-year gazetteer; not a lot of people know that…
Wikipedia (03/09/2020) has plenty by way of introduction to this, perhaps the remotest of Greek islands one can step on via scheduled services:
“Kastellorizo or Castellorizo (Greek: Καστελλόριζο, romanized: Kastellórizo), officially Meyisti (Μεγίστη Megísti), a Greek island and municipality of the Dodecanese in the Eastern Mediterranean. It lies roughly 2 kilometres (1 mile) off the south coast of Turkey, about 570 km (354 mi) southeast of Athens and 125 km (78 mi) east of Rhodes, almost halfway between Rhodes and Antalya, and 280 km (170 mi) northwest of Cyprus.”
The previous year (1887), our explorers, Theodore and Mabel Bent, had been excavating way up north on Thasos, finding some important marbles (including a fine statue they were not allowed to take home), which are now in the archaeological museum in Istanbul. Denied their rightful gains (as they saw them), and never a couple to give up easily, the pair spent a good deal of the summer and autumn of 1887 trying to drum up enough support to have these marbles rescued from the Turkish authorities and cased up for London. Letters exist from Bent to the British Museum requesting their kind interventions (it all sounds very familiar): “We have indeed been unfortunate about our treasure trove but I have hopes still. I sent to Mr. Murray [of the BM] a copy of two letters which recognize the fact that I had permission in Thasos both to dig and to remove. These I fancy had not reached Sir W[illiam] White [our man in the City, see below] when you passed through Constantinople. Seriously, the great point to me is prospective. Thasos is wonderfully rich and I have some excellent points for future work and … I am confident we could produce some excellent results.”
In January 1888, Theodore did receive a further grant of £50 from the Hellenic Society to return to Thasos to excavate, and the couple duly left for Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, the implacable, very capable Director of Antiquities in the Turkish capital, Hamdi Bey, refused Bent a firman to carry out further investigations, not only on Thasos, but also implying that the Englishman was not welcome to use unauthorized picks and shovels on Turkish lands in general.
Despite various appeals to canny career diplomat, the Ambassador, Sir William White, he and Mabel were forced to change their plans. Theodore may well have been expecting this. In the Classical Review of May 1889, his friend E.L. Hicks reveals that when Bent was first digging on Thasos in 1887 he had employed a local man to “to make some excavations in the neighbourhood of Syme” (far down the Turkish coast, north of Rhodes) on his behalf. Obviously satisfied with the results, the couple, after an excursion to Bursa to see the fabled Green Mosque, decided to return to Cycladic Syros, where they chartered for about fifty days the pretty yacht Evangelistria (the Bents refer to her as “the ‘Blue Ship’ from the gaudy colour with which her sides were painted”), with “Kapitan Nikólaos Lambros” and her crew, under Greek papers; and they embark (Wednesday, 29 February 1888) on this fall-back plan that will take them with the winds and currents as far south as Levantine, if not Oriental, Kastellorizo, frozen just off the Turkish coast, as a map will show you, like a mouse under a cat’s paw.
Meanwhile Mabel, on Syros before embarking, can be candid for her diary – they are to don pirate gear, “Theodore at once took to visiting ships to put into practice our plan of chartering a ship and becoming pirates and taking workmen to ‘ravage the coasts of Asia Minor’. Everyone says it is better to dig first and let them say Kismet after, than to ask leave of the Turks and have them spying there.” All, of course, reprehensible behaviour today. The couple also meet up here with their long-term dragoman, Manthaios Símos, who has sailed up from his home on Anafi , close to Santorini, to lend a hand.
Thus, on a sort of early tourist ‘gulet’ cruise (“There is a dog called Zouroukos, who was at first terrified… and the little tortoise, Thraki”), the couple’s investigations along the Asia Minor littoral (in particular the coastline opposite Rhodes) turned out fairly fruitful, and some of Theodore’s ‘finds’ from this expedition are now in London (see below). He briefly wrote up his discoveries of ancient Loryma, Lydae, and Myra for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (Vol. 9, 1888 – but a lengthier account was provided by E.L. Hicks (Vol. 10, 1889)), including transcriptions of over forty inscriptions and passages of text from Theodore’s own notebooks.
No doubt his notebooks were to come in handy when, a few years later, Bent is editing his well-known version of Thomas Dallam’s diary for the Hakluyt Society (1893), recounting the latter’s adventures in these same waters: ‘The 23rd [June, 1599] we sayled by Castle Rosee, which is in litle Asia.’ (Incidentally, musical-instrument maker Dallam’s Gulliver-like exploits below the gigantic walls of Rhodes, not so very far away northish, are highly recommended.)
But back to the Bents, a popular account of the their 50-day cruise in 1888 – well worth a read for those who get off on the rugged coastline from Symi to Kastellorizo – was written by Theodore for The Cornhill Magazine, (Vol. 58 (11), 620-35), and entitled ‘A Piratical F.S.A.‘ (Bent had recently been made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and was indulging in shameful hubris.)
(For the rest of Bent’s articles on this coastal meander, see the year 1888 in his bibliography.)
After various adventures, the Bents reached the Kastellorizo offing on 30th March 1888. Theodore sets the scene: “Great preparations were made for the arrival of the ‘Blue Ship’ at the first civilised port she had visited since leaving Syra. One of the ‘boys’, it appeared, understood hair-cutting, and borrowed Mrs. F.S.A.’s scissors for that purpose; beards were shaved, and shaggy locks reduced with wonderful rapidity… Castellorizo was the port, and it is a unique specimen of modern Greek [sic] enterprise, being a flourishing maritime town, built on a barren islet off the south coast of Asia Minor, far from any other Greek centre – a sort of halfway halting place in the waves for vessels which trade between Alexandria and Levantine ports; it has a splendid harbour, and is a town of sailors and sponge divers.”
Half thinking of home, the Bents are in need of some fancy paperwork to ensure their acquisitions thus far are protected from the prying eyes of both Greek and Turkish customs officials. Mabel’s ‘Chronicle’ gives us a little more, beginning with a sketch of their plans:
“First to go to the island of Kasteloriso, where there is a Greek consul, and have a manifesto made that we came from Turkey so that the Greeks may not touch our things in Syra… Now all was preparation for this civilized place. Theodore assured himself that his collar and tie were at hand. I hung out my best Ulster coat and produced respectable gloves and shoes… We really made a very tidy party when we reached our goal… We had a calm voyage. An average time from Myra to Kasteloriso is 6 hours; we took about 26. We did not land in the regular harbour. The captain said questions would be asked as to why there were 18 people in such a boat. We landed about 8. It is a flourishing looking little town, divided by a point on which rise the ruins of a red castle. The name should be Castelrosso, but first the Greeks have made it ‘orso’ and then stuck in an ‘i’. The Genoese or Venetians made it. Kapitan Nikólaos was greeted wherever he went by friends. He did not seem anxious to be questioned much, and once when asked where he had come from gaily answered, ‘Apo to pelago!’ (from the open sea). I was delighted at this answer and so, when some women, sitting spinning on rocks, called out, ‘Welcome Kyria,’ to which I answered, ‘Well met!’ and then asked, ‘Whence have you troubled yourself?’ ‘Apo to pelago!’ I smilingly replied and swept on round a corner where we could laugh, and who more than Kapitan Nikólaos…”
There is nothing in Mabel’s diary to suggest the couple made any sort of tourist excursion around the island, not even to the famous blue caves, which is a shame. Surprisingly, too, Theodore makes no mention of perhaps the most iconic ‘snap’ on the island, the Lycian rock-cut tomb (4th century BC), unique on Greek soil.
Mission accomplished, the next we learn is that the Evangelistria has reached the ancient site of Patara on the mainland: “Yesterday morning, Good Friday [March 30th], we had a very quiet voyage hither…”
Within days, Theodore and Mabel will be casting off for Syros once more, but, after 50 days in their gulet, they have had enough of open waters and decide to return to London the long way, overland, via Smyrna – Istanbul – Scutari – Adrianople – Plovdiv – Istanbul – Nicea – Istanbul – Odessa – Berlin. All a far cry from ‘civilised’, Levantine Kastellorizo… and one wonders of their dreams.
“We stopped 2 nights in Berlin at the Central Hotel”, writes Mabel, “We had travelled from Saturday night to Monday night, the 14th, and nearly always through forests. We crossed from Flushing and on Thursday [17th May 1888] we safely reached home… All our marbles reached England soon after, and after spending some weeks here are housed in the British Museum.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 260)
‘Here’ is the couple’s smart townhouse near Marble Arch, a vast magpies’ nest, with every tabletop, bookcase and cabinet showing off souvenirs from 20 years of travels in Arabia, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean, perhaps, too, some embroideries and large, distinctive chemise buttons (from the women Mabel chatted to on Kastellorizo), just arrived back in rough, pine crates, recently unloaded from the decks of the Evangelistria:
“The women here all wear the dress of Kasteloriso: long full coloured cotton trousers, then the shirt fastened down the front with… large round silver buckles, and then married women wear a gown slit up to the waist at the side. The 2 front bits are often tied back as they become mere strings. Then a jacket with sleeves ending above the elbow and very long-waisted, and very low is wound a scarf. The girls do not wear the gown. They have a fez on the head and a turban round it or not…” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’, Vol 1, Oxford, 2006, p. 246)
In the news once more, the seemingly persistent vicissitudes of the once-venerable Thos Cook & Sons (and all so symptomatic of British management for decades, especially in terms of brand stewardship) have sent the Bent Archive (late August 2019) back to Mabel’s diaries for references to the eponymous tour operator – for the couple, like thousands, tens of thousands, of travellers– relied upon Thomas Cook (1808-1892) for their occasional Nilotic episodes in the 1880s and ‘90s. The entrepreneur began his Egyptian tours in 1869.
Some background; Jan Morris, none better: “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire… and ‘leave it to Cook’s’ had gone into the language. Cook’s had virtually invented modern tourism, and their brown mahogany offices, with their whirring fans and brass tellers’ cages, were landmarks of every imperial city. They held the concession for operating steamers on the River Nile: all the way up to Abu Simbel the banks of the river were populated by Cook’s dependents…’ (‘Pax Britannica, The Climax of an Empire’. London 1998, page 64)
The Bents’ first reference to the firm is in early 1885. Theodore and Mabel are off to explore the, then Turkish, Dodecanese, but opt to start with the steamer from Marseilles to Alexandria, via the Straits of Messina, and a brief detour to Egypt. Mabel busies herself with her diary:
“In the evening of Saturday [17th January 1885] we went out to see Stromboli. We could dimly distinguish the fire but when lightning swept low on the sea behind it the whole black form of the island was shown. We went very slowly, whistling through the Straits of Messina. We ought to have been in Alexandria on Tuesday but only got to the desired port about 2 o’clock on Wednesday [21st January], quite as glad to get into the Land of Egypt as ever the Children of Israel were to get out. We had our little feelings as we sat in a boat with a Union Jack and ‘Cook’s Tours’ upon it. We got through the custom-house very well and my box of photographic things was never opened anywhere though it was hastily put into a box with ‘Matière Explosive, Dynamite’ upon it.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 6)
Moving on from the port of the famous Library, a few pages further in her diary Mabel details their sightseeing around Cairo – and, of course, at the Sphinx and its sentinels. Then, as now, tourists everywhere are suspended by their heels and well shaken; Mabel, in charge of the Bent coffers, is having none of it: “Monday 26th [January 1885]. By the bye, [Thomas] Cook, when asked, would send us to the Pyramids for £3 and I think we only paid £1 and 1 franc.” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 11)
The Bents’ first visit to Egypt was carefree and fun; Mabel’s diary pages read whimsically and breathless in 1885. Not so in 1898. Theodore’s (early, aged 45) death in May 1897 – Jubilee year – deprived Mabel of the focus for her life: the need to be somewhere else remained, but now with whom? And why? Typical of her she made plans immediately to visit Egypt on a ‘Cook’s’ tour in the winter of 1898 and chronicled the trip, ending with a return via Athens. The melancholy heading she gives this section of her diary is – ‘A lonely useless journey’. Her writing reveals her understandable depression. It makes unhappy reading, contrasting so markedly with her opening thrill of being in Cairo on that first visit with Theodore in 1885.
No doubt encouraged by her relatives, Mabel elected to put together for herself a ‘Cook’s Tour’ to Egypt and the Nile. But, often a mistake to revisit sites of earlier happiness, Mabel’s Egyptian pages echo a series of muted contrasts, sighs, and signs of near despair. That image of a confident, smiling Mabel climbing the Giza Pyramids on her birthday in 1885 is not the one that reappears as she groans ‘so sadly to Mr. Aulich’ of the Cairo Hôtel d’Angleterre, or rides ‘alone and unknown and unknowing’ around the great sites.
The famous travel company, however, is soon on the scene. They do their best to cheer her up: “Wednesday 19th [January 1898]. Port Said… We reached Ismailia about 10 p.m. I landed myself quite unaided and got to bed while the people [Thomas] Cook’s man was looking after, and a lady met by a government officer, were still in the custom house. I took a walk in the town next morning and started for Cairo… I was horrified by a note from Mr. Aulich, the manager of the Hôtel d’Angleterre, to say neither he nor the [Grand] Continental had a room and one had been taken in the Hôtel du Nil. I dined among many Germans, with their napkins tucked under their chins, leaving their elbows on the table and picking their teeth. My cupboard had such smoky coats hung in it that I dared not put in my dresses. Friday 21st [January 1898]. I went and groaned so sadly to Mr. Aulich that a garret was found for me – no bell or electric light – and thither I took myself before dinner. As I was in the Mouski, I thought I could walk in the bazaars so I put on my hat and made the best of my opportunity. Saturday 22nd [January 1898]. I went to Cook’s arsenal and chose a saddle to come with me with one of my own stirrups. On Saturday also I did all my final shopping and remembered when we were last here (or last but one). How we laughed …” (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 268)
A few days later, Mabel takes, on one of Cook’s fantasy barges, to the river – that river – that has fed Egypt for millennia: “Tuesday 25th [January 1898]. Embarked on ‘Rameses III’, a very comfortable ship. I had a tiny cabin, the last one to starboard, but made myself very snug; the passengers chiefly American. About 20 English, of whom 13 with strong Scotch accents, and a few Germans. All the Germans for Wadi Halfa and none of the Americans or Scotch. Cook’s programme was carried out daily, it being announced at dinner the night before. It was very strange the first day riding alone and unknown and unknowing in such a troop. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 269)
Mabel is writing on her Nile cruise boat. By 1904 the Cook Nile fleet comprised all these paddle-steamers (P.S.) for First Class passengers: ‘Rameses’ (236x30ft); ‘Rameses the Great’ (221x30ft); ‘Rameses III’ (200x28ft); ‘Amasis’ (170x20ft); ‘Prince Abbas’ (160×20 ft); ‘Tewfik’ (160x20ft); ‘Memnon’ (131x19ft). The steam ‘dahabeahs’ included the ‘Serapis’ (125x18ft); ‘Oonas’ (110x18ft); ‘Nitocris’ (103x15ft); and ‘Mena’ (100x18ft). Although Cook’s still have records for most of their steamers that travelled the Nile between 1890-4, they have no details for the period 1895-1900 and no booking records for Mabel’s journeys have been found (Cook’s Company Archivist, pers. comm., 2012).
Over the next few weeks (February 1898), Mabel makes several more references to Cooks as she visits the great sites and sights. The company, it seems, provides all comforts and care: “Thursday, February 3rd . Medinet Habou, Colossi, Dier el Bahàri, Gourna Ramesseum, and after tea I did the Luxor Temple alone; so nice and quiet and much less lonely than among so many strangers. Up to this we had awfully cold weather. I had, besides the Cook’s blanket and quilt, 2 blankets of my own, a shawl, dressing gown, newspaper, cloak and Ulster on my bed.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa. Oxford 2012, page 270)
On 22 February 1898 she has a visit by the famous man himself: “Reached Luxor Tuesday evening, but did not go to live ashore at the Luxor Hotel till Wednesday. Mr. Cook came on board that evening with Major and Mrs. Griffiths, off his dahabeyah ‘Cheops’, which we had been towing all day. (‘The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 2, Africa’. Oxford 2012, page 273)
Although with only a year to live, Mabel’s ‘Mr. Cook’ here is John Mason Cook (1834-1899), the only son of the founder, Thomas. The Luxor Hotel, to the east of Luxor Temple, was established by Cooks to accommodate the increasing number of tour groups along the Nile.
After Theodore’s death Mabel met the designer Moses Cotsworth in the Middle East and provided another Cook’s story. Moses had sailed to Beirut in December 1900 to visit the Sun Temple at Baalbek. In Beirut, he was ‘stranded in quarantine’ at Thomas Cook’s travel bureau. It was too late in the season for tourists to attempt the overland journey to Jerusalem and he was unable to afford a private guide. While waiting there he overheard a conversation between some other travellers who were also trying to attempt the same trip. Professor G. Frederick Wright and his son, Fred, were talking to Rossiter S. Scott from Baltimore, USA. They all wished to travel to Jerusalem. Wright invited Cotsworth to join their party as between them, and Scott, they could afford to hire a guide. The party set out for Damascus by the narrow-gauge railway over the mountains of Lebanon taking a slight detour for Cotsworth to visit Baalbek. By 17th December they had reached Damascus and organised a caravan of mules to carry them to Jerusalem. They had no tents but ‘depended on finding shelter wherever we should happen to be.’ In Hineh they sought shelter in the house of a Russian priest and had to remain there for two days to escape a snowstorm. Once on the move again they passed Lake Huleh where they were accosted by a Bedouin gentlemen who spoke English and asked them to drink coffee with him. The party then planned to visit the southern end of the Dead Sea. Wright recounted that ‘In this we were joined by Mrs. Theodore Bent, whose extensive travels with her husband in Ethiopia, southern Arabia, and Persia, had not only rendered her famous but fitted her in a peculiar manner to be a congenial and helpful travelling companion.’
Cook’s, of course, went bust inevitably and finally in September 2019 and future Mabels will no longer take to their beds, board, berths, flights, guides, and countless other services. Nor will their agents still greet them, smiling, at stations, harbour-sides, arrival gates, and pullman halts. Never more (unless reincarnated) will there be, Morris again, “Thomas Cook, the booking clerk of the Empire…”? All aboard? All abroad?
The Homeward Mail from India, China and the East for Saturday 19 December 1908 lists Mrs Theodore Bent among the passengers of the “S.S. Britannia, from London, Dec. 24, 1908 and Marseilles Jan 1., 1909; for Gibraltar, Marseilles, Port Said, Aden, and Bombay….” The P.&O. Britannia (6525 tons) was in her last year, having been launched in 1887. Disembarking at Port Said, Mabel is on her way to Palestine again; the Holy Land being almost exclusively her focus after the death of her husband, the explorer Theodore Bent, in 1897.
On a visit to Jaffa during this trip (still beautiful and peaceful then, nestled in the ‘plain of Sharon’), Mabel has a tour of the English Hospital there – in Ajami Street (now Yefet Street), opposite the Tabeetha School. She was visiting shortly after the death of the co-manager, Constance Newton, daughter of Charles E. Newton, the wealthy Derbyshire banker and landowner. Founded in the 1870s, the “Jaffa Mission Hospital was owned and operated by Mildmay Missions, an organisation which worked in conjunction with the Church Missionary Society. Constance [Newton] together with another missionary, Miss Mangan were responsible for running the facility with the help of a Syrian physician Dr Keith Ghoreyeb. After Miss Mangan’s death in 1885, the hospital was rebuilt into a functional medical facility. In 1892, Mildmay Missions bequeathed the Jaffa Mission Hospital to Constance Newton and Edith Eleanor Newton for full ownership and operation. After Constance became ill, the hospital was run by Edith and Dr. Ghoreyeb. Following her death on 19 August 1908, Constance left behind an endowment of £10,000 for the running of the hospital.” (Wikipedia) The hospital was left to the care of the Church Missionary Society and in 1944 had 160 beds and served nearly 3000 patients. A doorway survives.
One of the nursing sisters at the hospital, Sister Marie, has left an account of Mabel’s visit; it is a rare article, emphasising the celebrity status of this irresistible force. From this lengthy article in The British Journal of Nursing (Vol. 42, March 13, 1909, pp. 213-215), the paragraphs relating to Mabel are included here, under their heading “Our Foreign Letter: Under the Syrian Sun”, finding the impressionable Sister Marie carried away by the magic of the Levant and an ‘ardent lover of the East’; she loads her pen with purple ink:
“Picture to yourself an interminable garden of orange, pomegranate, and palm trees, with the plain of Sharon and the blue hills of Judea in the distance, this on one side, and on the other the sea, shining and sparkling as if the crest of each wave were studded with a thousand diamonds! … At nine the doctors come, and everything must be straight and tidy as in English hospitals back home… The doctors were late, and some of the children were getting impatient, when, instead of doctors, several travellers appeared in the corridor, one of whom was a lady, and, if she will pardon me the proclamation, may I add a very charming one? It was Mrs. Theodore Bent, who, as everyone knows, is an ardent lover of the East. After excusing herself for calling so early, she was taken round the wards, where she chatted gaily with the patients in their own language. This delighted them very much, and one woman declared she must be an Arab lady to speak so well. Before the visitors left the ward I noticed a small boy getting out of his bed, and making his way to Mrs. Bent. I looked at him and said…’Go back to your bed, Nuchly’. He paid no heed, but walked up to Mrs. Bent and said in broken English, ‘I see you one very nice lade, you come with me and I show you one very nice box in ze corridor, you will put money in, not so?’ and the Sister will buy for us one very nice muzeeka.”’ I felt so embarrassed, and wished my poor little at Jericho, especially when he added: ‘Why you looking cross, Sister? You teach me how to say it, in English, French, and Arabic. “Would you like to put somezin in the box?” You say I must sat that to all ze travelling ladies and gentlemen.’ I was much relieved when Mrs. Bent very kindly added her donation to the box, and we could pass on to another ward without the persistent little Nuchly. Through the kindness of many friends, we have our music box now, it is such a nice one, and plays ten tunes; it is a great pleasure to the patients, and had helped many of them to forget their aches and pains for a time. The women love it, and sometimes the children dance to it.”
Thoughts of and for Beira. The terrible floods caused recently by Cyclone Ida in Zimbabwe and Mozambique have tragically inundated Beira, in the central region of the country, where the great Pungwe slides into the Indian Ocean. The Bents knew Beira in late 1891. Mabel Bent writes in her diary as their party heads down east to the sea, and home, from Umtali. Nature then, as now, cares nothing:
“[Wednesday, October 21st, 1891.] Ink all dried up. Hens too tough to eat. Rode among hills. I had a weary time as I had a toothache or neuralgia and felt many a time as if I would tie my horse to a tree and walk. We found no water for a long way; ridge after ridge we climbed, always hoping for water in the next valley. At last, having left the track to seek water, Theodore said, ‘We must go back to the last water’. But I cried, ‘Anything but to go back! I don’t care how far we go now onward to Beira’. ‘Very well. We’ll go on!’ said Theodore…” (Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicles’, Vol 2, Africa, page 141)
At last the Bents reached the Pungwe. In their day the river was navigable the 40 km or so from Beira only as far as Mpanda’s village and Neves Ferreira – and then only in the right season – by a few small steamers (reminiscent of the ‘African Queen’ for those who know the book/movie). One of these was ‘The Agnes’: “a fine, comfortable, flat-bottomed vessel built after the style of those boats one meets with on European lakes. She is the property of Messrs. Johnson and Co.” (D.C. De Waal, (trans. J.H. Hofmeyr de Waal), ‘With Rhodes in Mashonaland’. 1896, Cape Town, page 142)
Mabel continues: “At 2 next day [15/16 November, 1891] we rowed in a boat with about 25 others to the ‘Agnes’ at Neves Ferreira and went ashore… We went on board about 6. There were only Mr. Maunde and ourselves 1st class, but we were not sorted into classes at all and masters and servants, black and white, all eat at the same table in relays, for the saloon is very small and cockroachey [sic]. At 8.30 the dozen mattresses were served out and I rigged up my hammock and we all slept on deck. I went to the saloon and Theodore held up my dressing gown, for there were people there, and I undressed and in the morning made my toilette in the same way. We started at 9, to stop at 12, but at 11 got stuck on sand, so had to stay till 8 when the tide rose. We reached Beira about 12. The river is not interesting, though here and there are pretty huts nestling among palms, bananas and mangroves. We saw many rhinoceri and only one crocodile. We crossed what seems a lake to get to Beira, a most horrid place with few houses and much sand.” (Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicles’, Vol 2, Africa, page 158)
The popular Christian nurses Blennerhasset and Sleeman are a little more kindly about the place: “The said town [Beira]… may be described as a long flat reach of sand, over which a few tents were scattered. There were also two iron shanties, and that was all. The place looked, even from afar, the picture of desolation.” However they enjoyed the scene more two years later on their way out: “In 1893 we founds streets, stores, and charming houses of the American chalet type”. (R.A. Blennerhassett and L.A.L. Sleeman, ‘Adventures in Mashonaland, by Two Hospital Nurses’. 1893, London, pages 61, 324)
The Bents left poor Beira on the S.S. Norseman around 24th November 1891, for their home journey south and onwards to Cape Town and London.
The illustration is ‘The Agnes steaming up the Pungwe River’. From a sketch by ‘Mr. Doyle Glanville’. ‘The Illustrated London News’, 15 August 1891, page 202. Private collection.
Ships played a central role in the lives of the Bents; they were as familiar and essential to the couple as planes and airports are to us.
The Oceania cruise ship ‘Riviera’ shown in the rainbow (the photograph was taken from Rhodes, looking northish, and roughly from the area (‘Kum Burnú’) the Bents had their modest lodgings).
So let’s steam, then, into 2019 along one of the Bents’ favourite waterways – the narrow straits separating Rhodes from Marmaris and the Turkish coast – only the vessels they travelled on in their time were a little different than the Oceania cruise ship ‘Riviera’ shown in the rainbow (the photograph was taken from Rhodes, looking northish, and roughly from the area (‘Kum Burnú’) the Bents had their modest lodgings, in early 1885, being not allowed, as Christians, to overnight in the Old Town).
Mabel notes in her diary: “We are at a clean little inn in the separate village called Neo Marás, the Christian quarter quite close to the sandy and windmilly point Kum Burnú at the north of the isle. It is quite a little walk to the town where no one but Jew or Turk may remain after sun set… There are quantities of smooth black and white shingles which are extensively used for paving floors and court yards in all sorts of designs. The passage outside our door and the dining room too have very pretty patterns.” (‘The Dodecanese; or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Archaeopress 2015, page 108).
In early 1885, Theodore and Mabel Bent arrived in Rhodian waters, via these extended straits in the photograph, from Alexandria, on the Austrian Lloyd ‘Saturno’ (1845 tons, built in 1868, in service until 1910), and left a few weeks later on the much smaller steamship ‘Ρούμελη’ (297 tons, 155 feet), which linked the smaller islands of the eastern Mediterranean. Originally named ‘Operculum’, and Clyde built, she comes into view several times in Mabel’s diary pages. She was ultimately broken up at Savona in 1933, a few years after Mabel’s death. In another twist of fate, the ‘Operculum’ also covered the South Arabian seas between Aden and Socotra, the setting for one of the last journeys Theodore Bent was to make, in early 1897, months before his death. How wonderful these old ships were, although Mabel was not so fond of this one:
“Well! The Roúmeli is a dirty little ship, and Theodore and I slept in the very smelliest cabin, destined for ladies by the English builders. As it was a passage room for all the passengers a quilt was hung across, but the steward was often within our side. At 11.30, two hours after we left Rhodes, we reached Simi and in the dark and by starlight I could see that we remained in a little land-locked bay for 2 or 3 hours. It looked lovely but no doubt by day it looks bare enough and like Chalki, which we got to about 7, a most hideous island, stony like Syra and not even the picturesque town to redeem it. We did not land there; there is a revolution about the tax on sponges and the Pasha of Rhodes was just going there so we came on to Nisiros, which we reached about 12.30.” (‘The Dodecanese; or Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks’, Archaeopress 2015, page 111).
All together, the Bents sailed over the rainbow here in these waters, between the tip of Rhodes and Marmaris, at least five times – check them out via the interactive map on our site.
The Bents embarked on a ‘fleet’ of ships during their twenty years of explorations to the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa, from 1880 to 1900 (see the interactive maps on this site for additional details).
What follows is in the way of an haphazard flotilla of Bent vessels in no particular sequence. If you have any information, or better still, illustrations, do please contact us. (Scroll down to see a list of ships that will be added from time to time – anchors aweigh!)
**Arriving soon! Vessel No. 5: The Messageries Maritimes Tage **
The Bents’ Vessels No.1 – January/February 1891, the Castle Mail Packet Company Garth Castle
“We left England January 30th , that is to say Theodore and Mr. Robert Swan and I, bound for Mashonaland, and Mr. Graham who was going to accompany us as far as Kimberley. The ‘Garth Castle’ was a comfortable ship and with no adventures we reached Cape Town Thursday, February 19th.”
The Bents took about three weeks (30 Jan – 19 Feb 1891) to steam, with stops, from the Channel to Cape Town. The ‘Garth Castle’ (1) was built in 1880 by John Elder & Co. at Glasgow “with a tonnage of 3537grt, a length of 365ft, a beam of 43ft 6in and a service speed of 12 knots”. She took the name of fleet-owner Sir Donald Currie’s estate in Scotland. She was transferred to the Intermediate service in 1890 at the time of the Bents’ trip to Cape Town in 1890/1, under Master H. H. Broadfoot. Surplus to requirements when the companies she was linked to merged in March 1900, she was sold to Elder Dempster & Co. in 1901 for their Bristol to Jamaica service and in the July of the same year chartered to Franco-Canadian Steam Navigation Co. for their Dunkirk – Bordeaux – Quebec run. 1902 saw her being was sold on again, to the Khedivial Mail Steamship & Graving Dock Co. of London, renamed the ‘Ismailia’. She was sold on to Soc. Armatrice Radivo-Frausin of Trieste, renamed, alas, the ‘Brunette’ and broken up in Italy in 1923.
The Bents’ Vessels No.2 – February 5-6 1885: The Lloyd Austriaco Saturno
February 1885 – en route from Alexandria for the Dodecanese. “Thursday February [5th]. I am writing against much rumbling of the screw of the Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Saturn’. We are having as calm a voyage as needs be but not without its hopes and fears. We [had] left Cairo on Monday evening at 6… and reached Alexandria at [time illegible]. We were greeted with the unpleasant intelligence that the Austrian would not call at Rhodes this week, so we went to bed with the half formed intention of going to Smyrna by a Khedivieh ship and trusting to luck for a passage to Rhodes. However the belated ‘Saturn’ came in early next morning and we left at 4 on Wednesday afternoon… Yesterday it looked quite black all round when we embarked and [it] began to rain and the harbour was full of gulls – 17 sitting in a row on the rope mooring a ship near. So we felt very gloomy knowing that if it were too stormy we should not touch at Rhodes but be carried to Smyrna. But the sun came out and all became bright as we steamed off ‘adagio adagio’.” [Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles, Vol. 1, page 67, Oxford, Archaeopress, 2006]
The Bents arrived below Rhodes’ Old Town on Friday, 6 February 1885.
The Austrian Lloyd and the Khedivieh Steam Navigation companies connected the major ports of the Eastern Mediterranean in the late 19th century. Austrian Lloyd started steamship operations in 1836 based at Trieste, which was then under Austrian rule. Initially traded to the Adriatic and later extended to the rest of the Mediterranean, India and the Far East. The passenger/cargo iron-screw steamer the SS ‘Saturno’ was built for the Austrian Lloyd Steam Navigation Co. on the Clyde (launched 11/01/1868) by William Denny & Bros at the Dumbarton, Leven Yard (126). The engine builder was Denny & Company, Dumbarton (and for the enthusiast, with the spec: 1×4 bladed screw, inverted D.A. surface condensing (54 & 54 – 36 in) and 194 nhp). She had a gross tonnage of 1761 (net: 1197) and was 274.6 ft in length, a breadth of 34.0 ft, and with a draft depth of 18.0 ft. She was sold for breaking up in 1908 but there is evidence in her notes that she continued in some sort of service until 1910.
The Bents’ Vessels No. 3 – Early March 1884: The Hellenic Steam Navigation Company (Elliniki Atmoploia) ΕΛΠΙΣ (ELPIS)
In early March 1884, the Bents are on Cycladic Tinos, waiting for the steamer ΕΛΠΙΣ (ELPIS) from Syros to take them (from the tiny harbour at Όrmos Isterníon) to Andros: “The ‘Praetor’ or agent of steamers gave us coffee and jam and we then rode down a fearfully steep road to the sea. There was a great crowd of 3rd class passengers all seated on the sand and one poor cabin where coffee could be had. The sea was very rough but we had the certainty of the steamer as we could see her come out of Syra harbour. She was a very large one, the ΕΛΠΙΣ, formerly the Truthful. We had a great difﬁculty in getting on board and also in getting off on account of the sea. We had an excellent luncheon and slept below for a couple of hours, having had too much fresh air on the mountains to care to be on deck. We landed at the chora of Andros about. A woman on the boat was so alarmed that she kept hold of Theodore’s hand till she seized his leg and kept that.” (Mabel Bent’s travel Chronicles, Vol. 1, page 48)
The ELPIS was bought by Elliniki Atmoploia, Syros, in 1884. Originally the British screw steamer Truthful of Liverpool, she was a cargo vessel modified to accommodate passengers for routes around the Greek islands and some mainland coastal ports. She was built in Barrow in 1877. In 1893, Elliniki Atmoploia went bankrupt and the ELPIS was transferred to the McDowall & Barbour Co. But she had a tragic end, showing how precarious such early steamers could be in bad weather and what risks the Bents regularly faced. In November 1904, on her way in the Black Sea from Burgas to Varna she foundered in a gale with the loss of all hands and passengers, as reported by the San Francisco Call (Vol. 96, No. 178, 25 Nov. 1904): “Seventy-Seven Persons Perish in a Shipwreck: Hope for the safety of the Greek steamship Elpis is abandoned. Constantinople, Nov. 24 : The Greek steamship Elpis, long overdue, is now regarded as lost. It is believed she sank in a recent gale in the Black Sea and that her entire crew and a number of passengers were lost, a total of seventy-seven persons.”
Original vessel specifications: Rigging: iron single screw steamer; 1 deck; 2 tiers of beams; 4 cemented bulkheads; double bottom aft 79 tons; Forward Peak Tank; Tonnage: 956 tons gross, 806 under deck and 606 net; Dimensions: 240.2 feet long, 30 foot beam and holds 16.1 feet deep; Poop 53 feet; Forecastle 42 feet; Bridge Deck 60 feet; Propulsion: compound engine with 2 inverted cylinders of 33 & 63 inches diameter respectively; stroke 36 inches; 160 horsepower.
The Bents’ Vessels No. 4 – Early January 1883: The Messageries Maritimes (Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes) Cambodge
“In 1835 the French Government created a state owned steamship service between Marseilles and the Levant. This continued until 1851 when it was transferred to the management of Messageries Nationales (the state operated road communication concern). The shipping side of the business was split from the road activities in 1852 under the name Compagnie des Services Maritimes des Messageries Nationales. With the return of the French monarchy in 1853 this became Compagnie des Services Maritimes Imperiales and the company expanded dramatically over the next few years and by 1857 owned 57 ships. After the Franco-Prussian War and the abolition of the monarchy in 1871, the company became Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes, usually shortened to MM.” (From the invaluable The Ships List)
“February 9th 1887. I have certainly a strange enough place to begin this Chronicle in! and one I never hoped to reach. No less than one of the convents situated on ﬁnger-like rocks in Thessaly and therefore called Ta Metéora, or the Meteors i.e. the Airy. This is Agios Stephanos. Most of them you can only reach by being hauled up in a net, but this has a bridge over a deep chasm, 12 feet wide. Well, here I sit by the prostrate Theodore, who is on the ﬂoor with a fever, while Manthaios [their Anafiote assistant] and I have only colds – mine a very awful one in the head. But I think I will go back and write that we left England on January 26th, Wednesday, and stayed 2 days in Paris, leaving Friday 28th at night and embarking at Marseilles for our 4th voyage on the Cambodge next day.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 1, Oxford 2006, p 185)
The MM Cambodge it seems was formerly the Cerdagne, built in 1861, 2,205 tons (“Lancé le 11 mai 1861 à La Seyne”). A few months after the Bents’ last voyage on her she was converted to cargo only, before being scrapped in 1902. She plied the long route, and French colonial interests, to the Far East via Suez. Full details and specifications can be found at Philippe Ramona’s essential website.
The Bents’ four sailings in her were: Jan 1883 from Marseilles to Athens/Pireaus; Nov 1883 from Marseilles to Athens/Pireaus; May 1886 from Athens/Pireaus to Marseilles; Jan 1887 from Marseilles to Athens/Pireaus.
The Bents’ ships (now and then Mabel fails to record the names of vessels, so this is not a complete list):
1882: Austrian Lloyd ‘Niobe’
1883: M.M. ‘Cambodge (January and November) (see above)